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By Meri Helleranta.
During the coffee harvest season in Nicaragua—roughly November through February—thousands of people leave their homes to work in fields and migrate from one coffee plantation to another, often taking their children with them. Unfortunately, few families have good choices of childcare during the long days of the harvest. Many are simply left to fend for themselves at the coffee pickers’ barracks.
The migrant farm workers are among the most vulnerable families in Nicaragua as their annual income largely depends on the produce quantity they can generate on the harvest months of the year. Both poverty and low level of parental education have been established as risk factors for the countless developmental milestones in early childhood and in particular the first three years of life are the peak time for brain development. This is the time when positive stimuli spur the formation of the fast neurological wiring that creates the foundation to learn and develop emotional attachment later on in life.
Since 2000 the Inter-American Development Bank has supported the Nicaraguan government’s efforts through the Ministry of Family (MIFAN) to give its youngest citizens a better start in life. The goal has been to help the little ones develop stronger cognitive, emotional, motor, and social skills for life.
As the team was implementing daycare and home visiting programs, they realized that in communities where steady jobs were hard to find, up to 30% of families were gone to make a little extra income during the harvest season. “We started to notice that around the end of the year, we wouldn’t find people at home,” said Sobeyda Bárcenas, who runs the early-childhood program at MIFAN.
That gave the MIFAN-IDB team an idea: What if we could follow the coffee pickers and their families and continue to provide them with support? This would mean that families of coffee pickers would have a safe, enriching environment in which they could leave their children during the day; the Nicaraguan government would be able to extend the reach of its early-childhood services, a critical social priority; and coffee producers would stand to increase productivity and revenue by being able to attract and keep the best workers during the harvest season.
Inspired by this idea and with the harvest season just three months away, the MIFAN-IDB team developed a public-private collaboration to pilot the approach. As a starting point the team joined forces with a Nicaraguan coffee export alliance, the Mercon Coffee Group which also encompasses a Foundation dedicated to programs on Corporate Social Responsibility in the coffee producing communities.
This expanded alliance then settled on a particular farm, a large coffee plantation called Buenos Aires in Jinotega, which employs some 100 workers year-round and another 700 during the harvest season. This farm already had a primary school operating on its premises during the harvest season and had an appropriate facility to host the smallest children.
During the following months, the alliance designed a three month curriculum aligned with the principles set forth in the National Policy for Early Childhood, provided catch-up training for the MIFAN educators, equipped the facility with cribs, educational toys, books and furniture designed to fit the needs of the small customers so that everything would be ready, in time for the influx of workers.
Together with the harvest season, the small pilot came to an end at the end of February, having provided day-care for 19 children of 6-36 months. Each morning some had been carried in sound-asleep by their parents well before the sunrise as the adults were heading out to the chilly fields. Each of the 12-hour days at the day care facility was broken up into small segments that included baths, snacks, naps, songs, lots of play and excursions so that “those who already walked could exercise their little feet” and those who still needed to be carried “could observe and learn and look around them,” explained Fátima Liseth Quezada, a 25 year-old educator who was one of the four people working with the babies and toddlers.
The benefits reaped during the harvest went far beyond the farm’s export-quality coffee to include grateful families, newly walking children, and a public-private alliance motivated to expand the pilot program to other farms. The pilot had proven the concept and brought alive the tempting idea that the coffee harvest could also give a targeted boost to child development.
What if every cup of coffee at your breakfast table could, not only get your day started, but also help a little one in the hills of Jinotega get ahead? Now that has the aroma of success.
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Meri Helleranta is a Social Development Specialist at the Social Protection and Health Division of the Inter-American Development Bank.